Playhouses offer children a space to exercise imagination

Staff and wire reportsAugust 23, 2013 

  • Playhouse Plans

    For more information, go to CottageKits.com or contact the Little Cottage Co. at 330-893-4212.

Whether it resembles a Victorian mini-mansion or a rustic backyard lodge, a playhouse is a spot where children’s imaginations can take off.

Our call for playhouse ideas brought in an amazing variety of designs, yet they all had something in common: a standing invitation for children to enter, take charge and create a world all their own.

“Our goal was to build a rustic structure to give it a feeling of adventure, a place far away, beyond the back yard,” Tyson Steffens, of Durham, wrote in describing The Lodge, the rugged two-story playhouse he and his wife, Elizabeth, built for sons Gage, 5, and Jackson, 7.

The couple spent several weeks in 2011 putting together recycled lumber and “repurposed” items to build the backyard getaway for the boys. Former crib rails became balcony balusters, an old range hood was transformed into a window awning, and a thick rope was woven into a ladder. The house now sets the scene for imaginative play ranging from Nerf gun battles to slug races.

“We did it all ourselves,” Tyson said, adding that they considered building a more traditional-looking playhouse but decided against it.

“We wanted to create a sense of adventure, of being far away from home.”

A Victorian charmer

Karin and Gil Long of Raleigh took a different tack when designing a playhouse for their two daughters more than a decade ago.

“We designed and built it ‘on the fly’ to replicate the architecture of our main house,” Karin wrote in a note that accompanying photos of the mini Victorian charmer.

The playhouse features gingerbread detailing, window boxes and historically accurate paint, in shades of plum, teal and white, to match the couple’s home in the Springdale Gardens neighborhood.

Gil Long, a computer engineer who took drafting in high school, drew the blueprints and did most of the construction over the course of six weekends.

“The girls played in it all the time,” Gil said. “They played ‘house’ and, later, ‘school.’”

Now that original playhouse residents Amanda and Meredith are all grown up, other kids from the neighborhood are invited to play in the little house surrounded by flowers and its own picket fence.

It’s only natural for children to be drawn to a playhouse, because it’s a place for “kids to be kids,” says Dan Schlabach, owner of Little Cottage Co., based in Berlin, Ohio.

Schlabach started his company in 2000, after designing Sara’s Victorian Mansion to commemorate the birth of his daughter. Since then, he’s sold assembled and shipped construction kits for playhouses internationally.

“Grandparents and parents alike want playhouses for children to be able to make memories,” he says. “We’ve found that the optimal ages for children to enjoy the playhouse are between 3 and 13 years old, and that time in a child’s life goes all too fast.”

How to get started

If you want to set up a home-away-from-home in your backyard for children, there are a number of things to do before breaking ground on a little building.

It’s important to pick a relatively dry, partly sunny spot on slightly elevated ground, where rainwater won’t collect. And consider adding a crushed rock surface or a poured concrete pad to stabilize the ground.

Don’t forget to consult the local codes department. In some areas, playhouses may be exempt from building codes that regulate “accessory” buildings, such as storage sheds.

“But the point is to check with local municipalities for building codes regarding playhouses before the little home-raising begins,” Schlabach said.

While some parents – or grandparents – are talented enough to pull together plans and materials on their own, it usually is a good idea to start with a blueprint drawn from woodworking books or online sites.

And companies like Schlabach’s will build the playhouse of your dreams or ship out construction kits with precut boards and predrilled holes along with easy-to-follow directions for assembly.

Use naturally rot-resistant lumber, such as cypress boards, and exterior-grade plywood for the structure, and hidden galvanized screws to avoid protruding points.

Keep it safe

Make the interior safe and comfortable by sanding down square corners and creating air vents near the roof. Use shatter-proof materials for windows (such as Plexiglas). After construction, let children become interior decorators and gardeners by choosing wall decorations, making curtains, filling flowerboxes or planting a small vegetable garden to tend. Create a memory wall by combining pictures or magazine clippings into a collage, then coating it with polyurethane.

Child-sized furniture can be made or purchased – or even tree stumps can serve as a rustic table and chairs.

Landscape with flowering dwarf trees, herbs, wildflowers and perennials such as hollyhocks.

The charm of a playhouse is that children can create their own private, perfect world, says Schlabach.

“A playhouse can become a family heirloom – one where parents build it for their children, who keep it for the next generation,” he says.

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